Cairo — The once unthinkable is happening. As Americans ponder a post-Mubarak Egypt, they are asking the most natural question: What does this mean for us strategically?
The Egyptian demonstrators are keenly aware of American concerns. They know that the United States is the most influential power player in the region, and that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has survived for 30 years with generous American patronage — about $1.5 billion annually.
“The people believe that America has a great influence on Hosni Mubarak,” said Mahmoud Diab, chief of the Cairo Lawyers Syndicate, a major locus of anti-regime activism.
In my interviews with protesters before the street demonstrations became violent, they took every opportunity to try a little public diplomacy of their own. They converged on any American they could find, and insisted that they have no intention of changing Egyptian foreign policy. Their fight is entirely about domestic issues, they said, and their priority is instituting democratic governance and ending corruption.
“Our foreign policy won’t change,” one protester said January 30 in Tahrir Square. “We want to live in peace. We just want our human rights, which were taken for 30 years in Egypt.”
Another protester, a physician, was a bit more blunt. “We Egyptians all hate Israel,” he said. “But we’re not going to fight them. And we can’t say no to America. The American dream is everyone’s dream. It is the nation of nations.”
Yet it is impossible to assess whether this acceptance of — or resignation to — Mubarak’s foreign policy outlook will endure when the regime ends, because it is still unclear who will be in charge. The demonstrations remain without a singularly influential organizational force or leader, and the demonstrators have been, overwhelmingly, people who have never before participated in politics. They showed up, they said, simply to stand with their countrymen against Mubarak’s dictatorship and the immense social inequalities it has fostered. Some expressed a preference for specific leaders, such as former IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei or Arab League chief Amr Moussa, but most protesters maintained an anyone-but-Mubarak indifference.
There is, therefore, good reason to believe that most demonstrators are the domestic-reform-minded moderates they claimed to be — people who care primarily about living under a democracy, and less about fighting ideological battles across international borders. And at every turn, they said the kinds of things that should make American spectators pleasantly optimistic.
“We want everyone to have freedom — Muslims and Christians,” said one protester, a Muslim. “Anyone, Muslim or Christian, must be allowed to lead and run. There is no difference between Muslims and Christians. Hosni must go.”
Another demonstrator emphasized that he wanted Egypt to remain hospitable to foreigners. “Look,” he said, pointing at the various storefronts that line Tahrir Square. “We have KFC, which is good. The Hilton, which is good. Tourism companies — good! Some of the companies here are foreign, even American and Jewish. We don’t want to destroy anything. We’re peaceful!”
But even if the demonstrators are as moderate as they claim, the fact that they are leaderless makes it impossible to know what kind of person or organization will ultimately capture their momentum. The fall of Mubarak will give Islamists unprecedented opportunities for dictating the terms of a post-Mubarak future, since they are key players in the opposition coalition that has been formed to represent the protesters. And even if the opposition coalition’s primary aim is to achieve fair and free elections, there is a strong possibility that certain groups will seek to control specific policy areas, and that foreign policy could fall into the hands of decidedly anti-American and anti-Israel groups.
Still, the United States has an opening for averting an unfortunate situation. To the extent that the protesters routinely tout American democracy as something to which they aspire, the United States can insist that Egyptian reform extend beyond merely holding fair and free elections. The Obama administration should call for any new Egyptian government to institute far-reaching civil rights and civil liberties, including a separation between church and state. This would make it less likely that groups that use democratic strategies for pursuing anti-democratic aims will hijack this fragile political system. And it is hardly a coincidence that these anti-democratic groups are also those whose ascendancy is most threatening to Western interests.
Protesters frequently ask for this kind of American involvement. In a few instances, they even dictated full-length letters to President Obama.
“Please Mr. Obama, Let Mubarak and the system close,” lawyer George Faheen implored in writing. “Let it fall. We want it to change. We want freedom. We want justice. We want the same in our country. Tell the people what the reason is that they can help Mubarak. We need freedom and need to change the system that continues for 30 years. Mr. Obama, would you stay for 30 years? Tell us the answer. Can you stay for 30 years? Will you give the presidency to your son? We are not against Mubarak. We want change. And not for this to continue for another 30 years. It is a kingdom, not a republic.”
If the Obama administration plays the positive, pro-democratic role that Faheen requests, it will be in a better position to ensure that the next Egyptian government will not be against our interests.
Eric Trager is a doctoral candidate in political science at the University of Pennsylvania. He was a 2006-2007 Fulbright fellow in Cairo, Egypt. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org